The good news is the Buffalo Bills were basically playing with house money when they traveled to New Orleans Sunday to face the once-beaten Saints. The bad news is they were playing against a stacked deck—or at a minimum the ultimate wild card in Drew Brees.
The Bills did what just about everyone expected them to do—lost on the road against an elite team, 35-17 while still showing enough promise to make the season’s second half still interesting to watch for more than just 2014 draft order positioning.
Buffalo had plenty going against them before the opening kickoff. E.J. Manuel was still out with his knee injury and C.J. Spiller’s ankle forced him to hang out with the rookie on the sidelines. To make matters worse, an angry New Orleans team was coming off their bye following a loss at New England and as Tim Graham of the Buffalo News pointed out last week, were averaging 41 points per game off their bye over the past four years and had failed to score at least 34 points.
That didn’t change Sunday.
I don’t feel I’m being naïve or bias when saying the following after seeing Sunday’s game—from player number two through 53 on the respective rosters, I’m not sure how much better or even if at all the Saints are than the Bills. Running backs, receivers, respective lines, linebackers and secondary’s you could make a respectable case for each squad being equal or better.
Of course the main difference is at quarterback. The Saints had Brees while the Bills countered with Thad Lewis. That disparity is huge.
Colossal, even. It’s the reason the Saints are 6-1 and Buffalo’s 3-5. Simple as that.
Brees was harassed by the Bills pass rush for much of the day, sacked four times and pressured on numerous other occasions. It didn’t matter. He still threw for 332 yards and five touchdowns.
Meanwhile Lewis was also sacked four times, lost two fumbles, dropped a third on the ground that was recovered, tossed an ugly pick and could’ve easily had two or three more.
Again, the difference between winning and losing.
Brees converted a handful of ridiculous throws. His first touchdown of the afternoon to Lance Moore came with blanket coverage from Nickell Robey. Brees looked off the safety and threaded a pass that couldn’t have been more perfect had he run the 15 yards to the end zone and stuffed it in Moore’s arms. His last touchdown, on the run just before crossing the line 42 yards in the air to Kenny Stills was equally brilliant. It was just that kind of day, which happens often when you’re one of the top quarterbacks in recent memory and perhaps beyond.
On the other hand, Lewis was as prone to overthrowing an open Marquise Goodwin as he was dumping a three-yard screen to Fred Jackson at his ankles. After respectable outings the past two games, Lewis very much looked the part of a practice squad quarterback that’s fought tooth and nail to continue collecting NFL pay checks.
To be fair, it was hardly a fair fight. Brees was signed to a $100 million, five-year extension for good reason in 2012. Lewis was on the Bills practice squad exactly 20 days ago.
The Bills desperately need Manuel back and Sunday showed why. He’s the future of the team and since he’s going to experience plenty of bumps in the road, he needs to experience games like this. Perhaps it propels him someday to be able to go drive for drive with a guy like Brees.
Thad Lewis is definitively not the answer, not that anyone ever really thought he is. He’s one tough S.O.B. as evidenced by the beating he took Sunday while still finishing the game, and he can be can be a wonderfully adequate backup to Manuel, but the Bills are never going win this type of game with Lewis under center.
On to some weekly post-game random smatterings:
♦ Beast Mode: I know that’s the moniker used to portray Marshawn Lynch during his time in Buffalo, but there’s no other real way to describe Kyle Williams Sunday. Williams was a beast; registering nine tackles and 1.5 sacks as he terrorized the Saints offensive line all afternoon. Williams may or may not overall be playing at a Pro-Bowl level this season, depending on your perspective, but I’m quite confident if you asked Sean Payton he’d definitely say it’s the former.
♦ Scott Chandler the pass catching tight end (7 receptions, 72 yards) is a solid offensive contributor. Scott Chandler the pass blocking tight end— not so much.
♦ It was fun kicking Colin Brown around weekly and blaming him almost exclusively for the Bills offensive line problems, but the Bills have now given up at least four sacks in four consecutive contests, and Brown has been collecting unemployment for the past two, which means it’s not all him. The line as well as Chandler, Lee Smith, Fred Jackson and anyone else with the responsibility of not getting Lewis killed is increasingly struggling to handle opposing pass rush presser. Right tackle Erik Pears struggled badly against the Saints.
♦ I like Doug Marrone a helluva lot better than Chan Gailey or Dick Jauron, but the “rookie” caption next to his head coaching resume sometimes rears its ugly head. I’m baffled by Marrone’s two second half challenges Sunday, particularly the second when he didn’t like the spot. It cost the Bills a pair of timeouts, which could’ve had been crucial in the final minutes had the game been closer. For the record, Marrone’s now zero-for-three on challenges this season.
♦ I also find myself questioning the discipline level Marrone has instilled in his team. The Bills, just as they have all season continued to shoot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties. They gave an already lethal New Orleans offense three first downs because of yellow flags, not to mention having a Leodis McKelvin interception in the end zone nullified by a Mario Williams facemask and a long touchdown pass to T.J. Graham wiped out on a hold by Chandler. Buffalo is an improving team, but not enough to get away with those backbreaking infractions.
♦ Jerry Hughes in pass coverage against Kenny Stills is the most horrific Bills defensive site I’ve seen since witnessing former “linebacker” Chris Kelsay in coverage against New England a few years bac. I’m sure Stills’69-yard deep touchdown with Hughes chasing down the left sideline was a blown assignment by Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd or maybe both, but that didn’t make it any less painful to see.
♦ Let’s hope the elbow injury to Marquise Goodwin isn’t all that serious. The rookie receiver had three catches for 56 yards and those numbers would’ve been substantially more had Lewis been able to hook up with him multiple times when he was wide open.
♦ Is Robert Woods becoming an afterthought in the Bills offense? The second-round rookie had just one catch Sunday for 7 yards and has just six receptions for 40 yards over his last three games.
♦ Conversely Stevie Johnson is returning to the form that got him a very nice payday in the 2011 offseason. Despite clearly batting a lower body injury Johnson still had seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown against the Saints and has 13 grabs over the past two contests. Say anything negative you want about Johnson, but don’t say he’s not gustsy.
♦ Mario Williams had another sack Sunday, giving him 11 at the halfway point and putting him well ahead of the pace to break Bruce Smith’s franchise record of 19. Williams wasn’t quite as dominant as he looked last week in Miami, but he still packed a presence and is looking less grossly overpaid with each passing week.
♦ It was a tale of two halves for the Bills in the running game, producing plenty of success in the first and next-to-nothing in the second. Buffalo ran for 75 yards and averaged 4.7 yards a crack in the game’s first 30 minutes, but mustered just 13 yards on nine attempts in the second half. Of course, being down multiple scores and not having C.J. Spiller at their disposal were significant contributing factors, but having a better running attack for the game’s duration would’ve helped Lewis out more.
What’s On Tap: the Bills begin the second half of their schedule next Sunday with a date at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs. In case you’ve been living under a rock the Chiefs are 8-0 and the league’s lone unbeaten team. If the Bills have any hope of even flirting with an AFC wild card, they’ll have to find a way to hand them their first loss.
Can they get it done? Sure. This game appears to have the makings of several Bills games we’ve already seen this year—one score contests that ultimately are decided deep in the fourth quarter or overtime. Kansas City is undefeated but hardly unbeatable. The Chiefs eight wins have come against exactly zero teams with a winning record this season. Alex Smith is efficient but not exactly a world beater. He’s certainly not Drew Brees, or even Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Andy Dalton or even Ryan Tannehill—– quarterbacks the Bills have already faced this season.
That doesn’t mean the Bills staying in a playoff race by beating the Chiefs will be an easy task. Kansas City’s defense is ferocious and led by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who have combined for 20 sacks in eight games. That doesn’t bode well for a Bills offense struggling to keep Lewis upright.
After Kansas City the Bills transition into the very winnable portion of their schedule with a trip to Pittsburgh followed by home games against the New York Jets and Atlanta (Toronto) on the docket before road contests against a pair of currently winless teams, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. It’s conceivable the Bills could take five of their next six, which would put them at 8-6 going into the final two weeks.
Let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. Bottom line—it has to start on Sunday.